Laura Berman took a certain tone and posture in her column. Here's my extended dissection:
December 4, 2012 at 10:10 am
Theorist suggests DIA riches will fix city
If the city becomes insolvent, could the riches of the Detroit Institute of Arts be at risk?
The riches of the Detroit Institute of Arts make the city solvent, but a solvent debtor's default poses its own risks. Those same riches, though, can fix the City's finances.
This taboo question — which defies all conventional rules of museum practice and ethics — animates many of Mark White's waking moments.
Primarily because this not-taboo question — which defies no conventional rules of municipal practice and ethics — drives Detroit's finances, and I'm convinced my research can turn Detroit finances in a better direction.
White, who has a Ph.D. in economics, is the Dr. Frankenstein of museum finance: a theorist who wants to perform his first experiment on a willing arts institution.
"... Dr. Frankenstein of museum finance?" Nice touch, that. "A theorist who wants to perform his first experiment on a willing arts institution?" A bit more neutral. But what about a Detroit default experiment? Have we lost sight of other experiments so quickly? How about context?
For the last three years, he has been a fixture on blogs and discussion boards as he tries to create enthusiasm around his mad scientist idea: Free the capital riches locked in iconic works of art by selling shares in artworks to individual investors, while allowing the museum to keep rights to the display and physical custody of the works.
"Create enthusiasm?" How about inform an unknowing public? "Mad scientist idea?" Another nice touch! "Free the capital riches locked in iconic works of art?" Well, I say put artworks to work for the public, so bad, but not too bad. "Selling shares in artworks to individual investors, while allowing the museum to keep rights to the display and physical custody of the works." Finally, something we agree on!
He calls this "coaccession," and he's gotten little respect for it. "What I haven't found is a museum executive director willing to sign on," he told me.
"He's gotten little respect for it?" From museum executive directors, no, but then, the museum crowd has some strange ethics -- for them, growing their collection's financial value trumps everything, including, in Detroit, public safety funding. It's that trump that make them generally unwilling to sign on. I explained that context, but context didn't make it into this atypically-short column. Space problems?
Although he lives in Evanston, Ill., and has never been inside the DIA, White has schooled himself on the institute and its relationship to Detroit's misfortune. He's drawn up documents, consulted lawyers and answered objections.
"Has never been inside the DIA?" So? Should I then not school myself on the institute and its relationship to Detroit's misfortune?
White is a board member of the Evanston History Center, where "coaccession" has been rejected. Eden Pearlman, the museum's executive director, says the museum would have a conflict of interest and isn't in dire financial straits.
"Coaccession has been rejected?" News to me. I thought Eden Pearlman had it on hold until the right moment.
But she recognizes a certain visionary gleam. "I do think there's something there," she says. "This may be one of those ideas where later we all wonder why we were so set against it."
If "later we all wonder why we were so set against it," it might be because language like "Dr. Frankenstein" and "mad scientist" introduced it to us...
Opposition even to talking about this idea runs deep, because museums are like churches: They aspire to higher values than material ones. In an age when everything from warehouse receipts to orange juice has become a commodity, art museums offer a sense of refuge.
"Opposition even to talking about this idea runs deep." There we can agree!! "Museums are like churches: They aspire to higher values than material ones." Yes, but it's Detroit's art, not the DIA Founders Society's art. Detroit aspires to help its people stay safe and healthy... or is supposed to. "In an age when everything from warehouse receipts to orange juice has become a commodity, art museums offer a sense of refuge." In an age when every Detroiter runs a risk of mugging and murder, growing the investment in an art museum's collection as fast as possible -- which has absolutely nothing to do with it offering a sense of refuge to the public -- shouldn't necessarily be an overriding priority.
What White needs to prove his point is a truly desperate or unusually risk-friendly patient for this first highly experimental operation. Thus, his interest in the city of Detroit and the DIA.
Well, yes. Stumbling toward financial meltdown, Detroit can run my experiment, or it can keep running the DIA Founders' experiment. So far, the DIA Founders haven't even tried justifying their "ethical" policy preference of keeping many, many billions of Detroit dollars invested in assets that generate no cash. Capital appreciation may be fine for museum ethics, but Detroit has bills to pay... or else!
And as Detroit lurches toward bankruptcy, his questions, which once seemed wildly inappropriate, are merely provocative. Can the city declare itself insolvent if it owns billions of dollars of art? The vast majority of the DIA's collection is city property, much of it purchased with city funds in the 1920s.
"His questions, which once seemed wildly inappropriate?" For a museum, sure, but not for a City that owns a museum! Detroit should have always thought practically about both the market value and cultural value of its artworks.
Imagine if city residents are faced with eliminating pensions or police service, while acting as if an unbreachable wall safely seals off the DIA's Van Goghs, Renoirs and Rembrandts.
Who's acting? City residents? No, they'd rather keep pensions and police service, especially if funding those innovatively can also keep DIA artworks safer. It's City leaders and DIA Founders who act like there's no connection between artworks and City finances!
Alas, no such wall exists.
"Alas?" For whom? City residents want police service and artworks on DIA walls. City leaders and DIA Founders want to endlessly grow the capital Detroit invests in its museum collection. Coaccession lets DIA artworks hanging on DIA walls earn funding for police service. True, the financial value invested the collection would grow more slowly then, or perhaps not at all, but residents would have city services plus access to artworks, so they would certainly be better off.
Bankruptcy lawyers and museum officials will tell you nobody knows what might happen, or what might be possible, if the City of Detroit defaults on debt obligations. DIA spokeswoman Pam Marcil says, "Those are uncharted waters. It's all speculative." But the museum's code of ethics absolutely prohibits it from selling art to raise funds. Its 30-year-contract with the city has also been interpreted to preclude selling art or entering into a "coaccession" agreement.
"Those are uncharted waters. It's all speculative." That comes from a group with fiduciary duties to avoid uncharted waters and speculation. Given this uncertainty, maybe making the museum's code of ethics yield to the municipal code of ethics is a better course. The City's 20-year-contract (not 30) with the DIA Founders need not preclude Coaccession agreements if both sides agree to amend it for the good of Detroit's residents... and its art collection too!
White wants to move the discussion beyond morality and emotion.
I want the discussion to contrast the morality and emotion of growing the City's artworks investment as fast as possible with the morality and emotion of helping fund public safety.
Innovators, he points out, are frequently wrong. "I could be a crackpot," he said, in a telephone call. "But I think I'm a genius."
Innovators are indeed frequently wrong, and I could indeed be a crackpot, but years of vetting my method with experts in many different fields -- precisely to find out if I'm a crackpot -- have led me to think I'm a genius... or at least to think I had an ingenious inspiration. I guess there just wasn't space for that context.